"In my experience as a senior executive in the competitive and fast-paced sporting goods industry, I have seen my share of good leaders.

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5 Steps to Stop Hearing and Start Listening

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Hearing, listening – what difference does it make? A great deal, in fact. Sociologists highlight crucial differences between hearing and listening that can hugely affect the way you interact with your employees or colleagues. In my article, Good Decision Makers Listen More, I outline the benefits of active listening for the decision-making process. But how can you tell if you’re really listening? Follow these simple steps to ensure you’re receiving the whole message and not getting distracted.

1. Understand the Difference

Before you can begin active listening, it’s important to understand the key differences between listening and hearing.

Hearing is a purely unconscious physical phenomenon. You do not control the sounds that you hear – from tires on the street to the hum of the air conditioner, your ears absorb this sound and your brain filters it accordingly; in some instances, your brain ignores sounds that it deems unimportant. If you are merely hearing a person speak, you may be able to repeat their words back to them, but the majority of your concentration rests on other things.

Listening is an active choice to engage with the verbal content of the speaker; you are focused on understanding their true meaning, which means you are undistracted, observing their body language, and processing what they are saying with the goal to totally absorb their message – not to formulate your own response.

2. Slow Down

It’s a busy day and you have many pressing issues on your mind. But probably the last thing you want to do is waste anyone’s time or your own. So if you’ve scheduled a meeting or someone swings by your office to talk, make sure to put aside your other concerns and give them your full attention. Sit up straight, make eye contact with the speaker and remove distractions if necessary. Resist the urge to interrupt, jump to conclusions, check your phone, or think about anything other than the topic at hand.

3. Ask Questions

Once the speaker has finished and you have taken a little time to process, ask thoughtful, relevant questions; do not jump in with judgements or the first solution that comes to mind. Questions are a key indicator whether or not one was actively listening – the person who is only hearing might ask a question that was previously answered. Active listening will yield an in-depth understanding of the other person’s perspective, from which you can ask questions to get an even better understanding, and the speaker will appreciate this demonstration of respect and interest.

First, paraphrase what you have listened to and ask if you have understood them correctly. Next, ask for any clarification, details, or ideas that the speaker raised in his or her initial address and get to the core of their message.    

4. Know Your Big Rocks

When it comes to active listening in business, it’s important to go in to everything you do armed with a solid understanding of your priorities. If you know what is highly important and what’s just filler, you can respond to colleagues appropriately – and also understand what’s important to them.

5. Suggest Next Steps

Once you have actively listened to the initial monologue and the answers to your questions, you may have many ideas that you want to share or other topics you want to cover. Now that it is your turn to take action, there are two major pitfalls to avoid: first, do not bombard the other person with dozens of ideas. Secondly, do not change the subject without responding first – this will make the other person feel unheard and devalued.

Instead, bring up two or three potential solutions and leave it open to discuss more later. You do not have to agree with the person or make any commitments, but you do have to acknowledge that you understand where they are coming from.    

Active listening requires a conscious choice on our part – and a good deal of effort. At the same time, it demonstrates respect, creates efficiencies and helps you to make better decisions as a leader. Know the difference between hearing and listening and follow through with a commitment to truly listen to others.

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Julie Nimmons

Julie Nimmons

Julie uses her 30 years’ experience to help CEOs, executives and business owners in her Vistage Group find success in their businesses and personal lives. With positive leadership, a firm sense of prioritization and the commitment to lifelong learning, Julie’s creates a constructive workspace for Group members where honesty, innovation and cooperation can flourish.